In 2016, The James Hutton Institute (JHI) won the RSPB Scotland Nature of Scotland Award for Innovation for their project ‘Magic Margins’.  This guest blog from JHI explains how the project got started, why it’s important and how it’s helping wildlife. Our 2017 Nature of Scotland Awards are currently open for entry, with an application deadline of 12 June. Enter or nominate a project here.

Back in 2010/11, farm staff at The James Hutton Institute became involved in a science project at Balruddery Farm, near Dundee, to investigate ongoing erosion in the tramlines of arable crops. During this work, we saw for ourselves how fragile and susceptible to erosion our sandy loam soils really are.

A large scale field experiment was set up on a relatively shallow sloping field of winter barley and the results from the collection points, at the bottom of the slope, made us realise that a relatively shallow slope on an arable crop could generate significant water run-off, erosion and nutrient loss. We estimated that the average loss of sediment via tramlines was 150 kg/ha in the winter of 2012-13. Visually that’s the equivalent to two bulk bags of soil, which contains not only valuable nitrogen and phosphorus but also soil carbon. 

This is a problem that can affect all arable farmers so we decided to investigate whether we could do something to alleviate the issue. We knew it had to be a simple, low cost solution - semi-permanent, without compromising our farming or harming the environment.

All arable farmers in Scotland have given up at least 5% of their total arable area as Ecological Focus Areas (EFA) and we decided that these areas (field margins, buffer strips, beetle banks and fallow areas) could be used to help slow the movement of water across the landscape. It wasn't until spring 2013, while planting potatoes, that we pondered whether a machine we use called a “Tied Ridger” could help provide the solution. The Tied Ridger is used by some vegetable growers to create a series of dams between potato drills to help retain irrigation and rainwater on sloping fields.

We experimented with the Tied Ridger and in May 2013 we created a few new field margins across the bottom of the most vulnerable fields with our potato drill plough and the Tied Ridger, before sowing them with a wild grass seed mix. We were so pleased with the effectiveness of our margins – slowing the movement of water around the farms - that this was expanded to all margins on our entire arable landholding.   

Our field margins look like any other well established field margins, but with hidden added value. It is also possible to create ‘beetle banks’ across the middle of sloping fields to further reduce run-off momentum in a field. We now refer to our innovative field margins as “magic margins” and they have been incorporated into new science projects to explore the value of innovative management on farmland biodiversity and the wider environment, as part of our drive for sustainable farming systems. This has broad implications for water quality as well as the long-term quality of our soils.

In Scotland, diffuse pollution, including sediments and nutrients, are linked to ongoing concerns for important species, such as the freshwater pearl mussel, along with economic implications for salmon farming and healthy fish for the angling community. Our scientists have established that they are also proving to be an excellent refuge and food reservoir for voles and mice. Increased plant diversity attracts pollinators and other insects and adds visual value to the landscape and improved cover and food sources for birdlife.  More recently our margins have helped deter off-road vehicles which have been used by criminals to participate in the practice of hare- coursing in our area.

In 2016, we were delighted to be shortlisted and then go on to win the RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards’ Innovation category. Since then, we have worked hard at trying to showcase our innovation to the wider industry and have hosted several agronomy groups and farmer groups, including the Fife Monitor farm group. The next stage will be to develop our magic margins on our neighbouring farms where we hope to be able to measure their added value in our whole water catchment area.

RSPB Scotland’s Nature of Scotland Awards 2017 are currently open for entry with Innovation being one of the nine categories on offer this year. Find out more, download an application form and submit an entry or nominate a project you admire by clicking here.